I got the email this morning. Sitting predawn on the chilly tile of our bathroom floor in a hotel, I read it in the brief window of spotty Internet access I could eke out here in Cambodia. I was unprepared for what lay beneath my friend’s subject line, “Sad News.”
The email was not an easy read.
This post won’t be much easier.
She wrote to tell me that her friend’s son — a beautiful, golden child, not yet school age — had died. This child, a living cherub in the local news images, a whole universe packed into roundness and dimples in his parents’ hearts, had lost his life in an inexplicable and crushing blow of fate.
(I nearly wrote here, “in one of those inexplicable and crushing blows of fate, ” but that would have been crass, horrible. That bad choice of words would have plopped this unique tragedy in some generic slot in a parade of what an onlooker might consider “similar” stories of blows of fate. But no matter how incessant the procession of tragic losses might seem, not a one is ever merely “one of those.” Loss is unique the way life is. Death, like DNA, is one-of-kind, ultimate, defining.)
It takes only seconds to read the first few sentences of my friend’s email, then to click on the link to the local news story (and to click it off because I cannot bear it), then to reread the sentence that describes what happened, close my eyes so I can breathe, then reopen them to reread that hellish, impossible sentence about the death — the death sentence — a third time. By then, a physical change has overtaken me and my teeth have begun chattering. I lean my head against the wall, holding quite still as the thoracic compression sets in.
Then I allow myself to slide — dive headlong, really — down, down deep. Toward bedrock.
Down there where things are thickly layered with meaning, my thoughts fire in a thousand directions. I am thinking of the family of this boy, imagining, mostly, the parents. As I think of them, I am also remembering. I see flashes and hear phrases of the local television news footage of our own son’s accident, how the spot was squashed between shrill commercials for used cars and pioneer day firework displays. How strangers with synthetic voices were speaking my son’s name, the name we had given him, which naming was the first step we parents took in claiming new life as our stewardship. As ours.
I re-felt the confusion: we had never been contacted about a television station’s right to speak his name, to speak of this accident at all, to put on the airwaves precipitous details that were misleading and false, that there was an unrecognizable photo of him, my son, filling a screen. That I watched stone still but inwardly crazed: Who took that shot? And who gave it?
And then that moment when, just hours removed from an ICU where I had watched my son die, I took in the terrible truth that, as dead, my boy was now common property. Common. Generic. “One of those.”
On my hotel bathroom floor and feeling the solidity of bedrock under my spirits, I think more of this family, strangers to me but also new enlistees in this sorrowful procession of tragic losses, and wonder if the parents have even seen that news flash, or if they have been able to open their eyes to each new day as life keeps dawning, insisting upon itself. If they have been able to take a bite of food for days. Or drink something. If they are standing up without their knees buckling, or if, at 2:00 a.m., they are walking their now-alien neighborhood streets barefoot and in their pajamas, tearless — the tears having stopped for this one hour — yet gulping for air.
Then the others. I start seeing them. The child who fell off of his father’s lap and under the wheels of heavy farm equipment. And that other one, an only child, ill for most of his eight years of life with leukemia, who toppled off the edge of an apartment balcony after he said he needed more air. The one riding her birthday bicycle while the proud family trailed her in their car, close enough to see her wave back at them just as a sideway blast of a moving vehicle hit her, killing her instantly.
The child who did not revive from the coma after a fall from a skateboard. The whiz-kid downhill skier who hit a tree and expired there in the snow. The other, shot point blank and at close range by another child in a neighbor’s basement. The one found in his bed, drowned in a shallow pool of his own vomit. The cheerleader whose bulimic habit culminated in a fatal heart attack in a public bathroom.
The teenager whose headaches weren’t from too much reading, but from an aggressive brain tumor. The twenty-something who lost control of her car. The one who, while serving his mission, was intentionally run over by a car. The other missionaries whose gas space heater put them into a sleep from which they did not awaken. The girl who collapsed on a church hike. The seven-year-old who choked on Halloween candy but no one saw in time, since her gagging was hidden behind her Sleeping Beauty mask. She went unconscious then died on her own front lawn while the other children watched, thinking she was just playing her part.
The infant neglected by the babysitter. The lacrosse star who one moment, was laughing at a sitcom and the next just stopped breathing. The one who slipped on ice. The other who fell through. And the one who drowned in a hidden whirlpool the locals call “The Meat Grinder,” but a foreigner like himself only knew as the place where his classmate was trapped and would die if someone didn’t try to get him out.
With that funeral march crossing my thoughts, I am hearing afresh the litany of questions that play and replay and loop like slow accompanying music all around these one-of-a-kind stories of loss. They are heavy, both the cosmic questions and the life-and-death stories, and what I am certain of is that the final word on both is not given in this little sliver of existence we call mortality. While people in their zeal and habit for efficiency will inevitably offer lite answers to the heavy questions, our ears might hear them, but our hearts need not heed them. It has been my experience that heaven alone answers the heavy questions.
To speak to the heaviness of loss, I include the following poem. Its title is the Hebrew term for the first phase of formal mourning which, according to Jewish tradition, is the week between death and burial. My own experience was hardly so tidy. That first week was indeed intense and irretrievable —an incubator for revelation — but far heavier mourning lasted for months on end, and the aching has spiked at times over the years. Now, at five years from the zero point, there are moments — a day or so — when I simply fold down. Or there might be a morning when I am sitting on a bathroom floor in Cambodia and get word of another tragedy. Then it’s boulders in the soul-pockets and I sink right down to bedrock all over again.
This poem I wrote between Christmas and New Year’s of 2007/2008. That year, we did not want be in Munich where Parker was to have come to us and prepare for his mission departure slated for February. So we were in Utah at his gravesite, which, like all of Utah, had suffered an early winter so his ice-encrusted mound had no tall marble marker yet. Just a moon to spotlight the empty space. Otherwise, it was the most insignificant rise of earth in all of Utah.
Just one of those, you know?
Heavier than Something is Nothing.
Gravity-like, Nothing drives to the ground, leveling
Compressing, leaning with ghostly force upon the upright
(Or the bent or the already broken) reducing,
Grinding cheekbone flat into bedrock.
Louder than Presence is Absence,
Its throbbing thickness a vacuumy summing behind the eyes.
For size, Loss is more sweeping than any found
Thing beyond price or words.
(Words, with their toothpicked approximations.)
Dearth, more impenetrable than lead.
Death, more devouring than light.
Tonight the crook of my pale arm strains under the weight of emptiness:
Mass, Abyss, Anvil, Black.
Tonight my muteness rasps along
This night sky hung like three-hundred-sixty degrees blown glass
Drilled through with one insouciant marbled moon
Or the white point punctuating black flatness, pinning infinity in place,
Demarcating this spatial phraseology of blank verse.
Big and billowing oxygen, enough to suffocate as
I crouch on this graveyard dirt,
Yoke’s edge cutting into the nape of my neck,
Hands over my head in submission.
All this cosmos.
Every endless inch empty of my child.
Let me say it now or
Hold my bluegray breath in silence,
Hands high, head low,
Cupped on every side in black.
I am parentheses.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.